Beguiled, p.11

Beguiled, page 11

 

Beguiled
 


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  Hesitantly, he said, “For any help you can give, I’d be grateful.”

  “Oh, I like the sound of that. Being indebted to me makes you much more agreeable.”

  In rueful mirth, he closed his eyes, and lines of laughter lent him a youthful air. “Do not teach her your saucy ways. I hope to find her a good husband someday.”

  Agnes abhorred arranged marriages, Lottie’s notwithstanding. A woman should be free to mingle in society, to travel, to make a friend of a man before pledging her troth and giving him leave to rule her life.

  “You seem far away,” he said.

  “Do I?”

  “Yes.” Honesty wreathed his handsome features. “Do you miss your family?”

  Among the MacKenzies the bond went too deep, and neither time nor distance could break it. “Not to distraction. I’ve often been away from home for long periods of time.”

  She watched the occupants of the music room. As one, Auntie and the children rose and disappeared into the hall. Agnes realized what they’d been doing on the floor. “Oh, no,” she said. “Auntie Loo’s made the children a kite.”

  He followed the line of her vision. “You sound troubled by that. What’s the harm?”

  “ ’Tis a bad sign. Kite-making is the last of her ideas for occupying children. Something will have to be done.”

  The doors flew open and the children burst into the courtyard. Both were dressed in ordinary, serviceable clothing rather than smaller versions of adult apparel. Hannah wore a pink cotton smock, Christopher, a jacket and knee breeches of sturdier cloth. The girl’s black ringlets had been tamed, braided, and wound into coils over her ears, same as Auntie Loo’s.

  Skipping over the paving stones, they chatted excitedly, too involved in their own fun to do more than wave to Agnes and Edward.

  He said, “If Auntie’s patience is gone, we’ll postpone our visit to the mill until later tomorrow. Mrs. Johnson goes to market in the morning, but she and Bossy can watch the children in the afternoon.”

  Without thinking, Agnes said, “Why not take them with us? Except for an hour or two in the courtyard each day, they’ve been cooped up inside.”

  He plucked an errant piece of dried grass from the walkway, and using only one hand, tied the stem into knots. “I’d forgotten about your father’s unusual way of raising children.”

  Most parents shunned the job of rearing children, but Edward Napier didn’t strike her as that sort of guardian. “They’ll be safe with us.”

  “Very well. They’re usually on their best behavior at the mill.”

  Agnes scratched her wound. “I propose we leave them to their kiting.”

  “So this toady doctor can relieve you of those stitches?”

  If she weren’t careful, Edward Napier would relieve her of more than a few knots of silken thread. “If you play the toad again, I’ll croak.”

  Laughing, he rested his arm at the small of her back and ushered her inside. Too involved in their kite, the children didn’t notice them leave, but Auntie Loo did, for she winked at Agnes.

  * * *

  His study had been cleaned, the torn furniture replaced, and his desk chair repaired. Only the quarrel in the firescreen, draped with MacKenzie colors, remained as proof of the assassin’s presence.

  “Sit there on the window seat.” He rummaged through his medical bag. “The light’s better.”

  The glaziers had moved to the music room, but the faint smell of damp sealing paste lingered in the air.

  Edward looked so comfortable in his role as doctor, she couldn’t help saying, “I hope you will not rip up another of my gowns.”

  He stopped, instruments in hand, and glared at her. “Now who’s drawing lines in the conversation and begging me to step over them?”

  “ ’Twas a jest.” But she couldn’t look him in the eye.

  “I see. I’d offer to send you to the modiste for a new frock, but I understand you’ve already been there. Take off the sling so I can get at your shoulder.”

  She did look at him then, and the effect was immediate but subtle. His gaze fell on her breasts, which were fashionably displayed.

  “That’s a Paris gown.”

  “Do you like it?”

  The gentle shift of his focus told her he was considering several answers. Completely engaged, she was surprised when he said, “Yes, I do like it, especially in spring.” He sat before her on a stool. “Do you like Paris in the spring?”

  The sly creature. “I prefer Athens.”

  All interested companion, he smiled and reached for the bandage but stopped. The square of cotton was held in place over the wound by a narrow strip of cloth that passed between her breasts, around her side, and up her back.

  “Would you rather dispose of that yourself?” he said, pointing at the spot where the strip disappeared into the bodice of her gown.

  The catch in his voice gave him away. “You decide,” she said.

  With one hand, he worked at the bandage, untying the knot. When it was free, he said, “Take a deep breath.”

  She did, and her breasts came dangerously close to spilling from the gown. He tugged on the end of the tie in front, and she felt the other end of the cloth crawl down her back and slide under her arm. Hand over hand, he pulled slowly on the strip, and the come-hither gesture, combined with the creeping of that cloth across her rib cage, sent shivers of longing to her toes. The dragging continued at an agonizing pace, leaving gooseflesh in its wake.

  The tail end of the cloth met a snag. He glanced up, and his eyes were dreamy with distraction. “Exhale.”

  She’d probably stand on her head, had he instructed her to. Her breath rushed out, and time slowed, her senses fixed on the exciting journey of that strip of cloth crawling up her cleavage.

  With a flick of his wrist, he pulled the fabric free and pitched it aside. Then he grasped her, his fingers snug beneath her breasts. As if she were a delicate vase on a shelf, he shifted her. “You’ll need to sit upright.”

  Words of agreement lodged in her throat. He was too close, and she still tingled from his touch. But when he leaned back and began rolling up his sleeves, she acutely felt his loss. He had the most agile hands, she thought, as she watched him turn up the silk in cuff after cuff. His forearms were beautifully shaped with ropes of muscles and a light dusting of hair.

  “You have an interesting glimmer in your eyes,” he said.

  Had her expression mirrored her thoughts? Probably. “I’m not the only one wearing a remarkable look.”

  “Your sister Sarah told me that you were always the first into the pond and the last to enjoy it.” His voice dropped. “If you jump into a pond with me, I’ll make certain you enjoy it.”

  There it was, seduction in its purest form. Only the boldest of rogues spoke so plainly. She said the only thing she could; she must stay on her side of the line. “Thank you, no. But I’m flattered all the same.”

  “You considered it?”

  A reply was unnecessary; she knew he could read her thoughts.

  “We’ll see about that,” he said absently.

  Then he scooted the stool closer and examined the wound. “You tried to take the stitches out yourself.”

  The uneasy moment had passed. “Whatever you used for thread defies a Toledo blade.”

  “Even a very sharp one, ’twould seem. The thread is silk,” he said in his doctorly voice. “Hence, the punctures are smaller and the scarring much less obvious than with cotton thread.”

  “I hope the smaller ones are less painful coming out.”

  “Somewhat.”

  He uncapped a vial of thick amber liquid, and the odor of spices drifted to her nose. With his index finger, he rubbed the oil over the stitches.

  Agnes sighed with relief. “That feels wonderful. What’s it made of?”

  “The tongues and brains of toads.”

  She stiffened. “Never will I find humor in that!” But even as she said it, laughter captured her. She heard the
snip of the clippers, but the sting had gone out of his treatment.

  He must have again read her thoughts, for he raised his brows as if to say, “See, my dear?”

  He’d distracted her from the pain. “Are all of the doctors in Glasgow so aware of the comfort of their patients?”

  “The best ones are.”

  “Who is the very best?”

  “I am.” He smiled and patted her arm.

  She believed him. Boasting was not his way, for he was comfortable with himself, and his medical procedures couldn’t be faulted. Or could they? “I should think the very best of the doctors would have given me a vial of that magic potion days ago.”

  He rested his left hand on the side of her neck. In his right hand he held the tiny scissors. “Only a poor physician would prolong this treatment. Too much of the mixture is dangerous.”

  She couldn’t be sure that he was truly talking about inept doctors or subtley warning her about the awareness that ebbed and flowed between them. When he lifted his brows in query, she knew.

  Fither his fate. “You can challenge me until the Stewarts come home to rule, but I’ll not cross over that line, Edward Napier. Not today.”

  The cool metal touched her skin. His attention wavered. “I haven’t seen you wear the jade necklace. Was it damaged?”

  Jewelry was the last thing on her mind. “Not the stones, but the thread is stained.”

  “Give it to me, and I’ll restring it.” He snipped a stitch.

  Agnes winced, but the discomfort was minor. “You’d do that for me?”

  “Of course.” He clipped another.

  “The thread will have to be strong.”

  “A double strength of this?” He held up a piece of the thread with which he’d stitched her.

  “You could moor ships in a gale with that.”

  “ ’Tis the perfect material for stitching up beautiful skin.”

  Agnes sensed the movement of his hand before she felt the smart of thread being jerked through skin. At the touch of the oil, she sucked in a breath.

  “You’re not paying attention,” he chided. “Shall I restring your necklace?”

  Thinking past the relief proved too difficult, and she nodded.

  “What did Christopher’s dancing teacher say to you?”

  She wasn’t fooled by the conversational detour, but she appreciated his effort. “The dancing master was most distressed over the beetles your son put in his lunch pail.”

  Edward grinned. “Tragic, that. He’s newly wed and still enamored over every aspect of housewifery—even the packing of his lunch.”

  Above conversing with the steward, most noblemen didn’t trouble themselves with servants, and certainly not the private details of their lives. “Will you punish Christopher?”

  “Aye, I’ll insist that he receive lessons in the ‘heel and toe,’ which he swears is a dance meant only for strutting cocks and silly females.”

  “He’ll reconsider the advantages of dancing when he’s older.” She felt movement against her skin.

  “Do you remember your first dancing teacher?”

  “Aye, ’twas my father.” Another prick. “Ouch!”

  “Easy now.” He dipped his finger into the oil again and massaged it into the wound. They were nose to nose. The sting vanished and the itch eased.

  “I could purr,” she said.

  His hand stilled. Agnes held her breath. The mood changed, and she felt pulled toward him, yearned to arch her back and nuzzle his neck. The look in his eyes beckoned her to do just that, and it took a mighty effort on her part to quell the urge.

  He grew pensive, and Agnes feared he’d cross the line again. But he didn’t, and she relaxed when he resumed his ministrations.

  “What else have you learned?” he asked.

  She told him about the nanny.

  “You verified the signature on her letter of reference? It wasn’t Sir Throckmorton’s?”

  “Trimble says no, according to the banker, Robert Carrick, who is familiar with Throckmorton’s signature. The reference indicated that Mrs. Borrowfield left Throckmorton’s employ before coming to you. Did you never discuss the woman with him?”

  “He’s not the sort of fellow to know his servants,” he said, an apology in his voice. “He lives in London and has yet to visit Glasgow.”

  According to Trimble, the Napiers had done business with Throckmorton’s firm for over twenty years.

  “Anything more?” Lord Edward asked.

  “Trimble swears the forger was accomplished and possibly a Londoner, same as your Sir Throckmorton.”

  Lord Edward nodded and sat back on the stool. “Your Mr. Trimble found no trace of her? Not even at her church?”

  Agnes hadn’t thought of that avenue of investigation; most criminals did not bother with worship. “Which church?”

  “Saint Vincent’s in Trongate. We often left her off there on our way to services at Saint Stephen’s.”

  “The cleric may know something more, and if we’re fortunate, he’ll lead us to her. Shall we stop in Trongate on our way to the mill, or will your pastor take offense?”

  “I shouldn’t think so.” With a dip of his head, he indicated her shoulder. “You’ll have a scar, but not a bad one.”

  Agnes strained to look, but couldn’t see the wound. “I’ll accept your word on it that my husband won’t be repulsed.”

  His voice dropped. “If he does, have him visit me.”

  “What will you say to him?”

  “That he should not complain, because I’m very practiced in medicinal stitchery.”

  “On whom did you practice?”

  “Whom?” As if she were completely daft, he said, “On an orange.”

  Taken aback, she drilled him with a cold stare. “Are you suggesting that my skin is like that of an orange, and before you answer, I remind you that we are under truce.”

  He blew out his breath and studied the ceiling. “Shall I explain to you the scientific reasons why your skin is similar to the peel of an orange?”

  Fighting the urge to huff in disdain, she said, “Only if I shan’t be offended by it.”

  He rolled his eyes. “Pardon me, but I cannot predict all of your sensibilities. No mortal man could.”

  She did sound missish. “In that case, I do not think I wish to know how you mastered a needle and thread.”

  “Good,” he said with finality. “I believe we can dispense with the sling when you are here, but for the next week or so, I’d like for you to wear it when you leave the house. You’re healing remarkably well.”

  She almost said that it was because she had a remarkable doctor, but the tension between them had momentarily abated. Better she broached an innocent topic. “Auntie Loo said you helped the carpenters working in the tower. Does that mean you’ve forsaken your laboratory?”

  He raked his sleeves down and fastened the shell buttons at his wrists. “I’ve made some progress, but my theory is flawed, and I haven’t the time now to find out where and why.”

  A scientist. He didn’t look like any of the professors and inventors she’d ever seen. “Tell me more about your engine. What is it designed to do?”

  “I’ll show you tomorrow at the mill. Now tell me how you came to know this Mr. Trimble.”

  She pictured the efficient Haskit Trimble. “He was an officer in Her Majesty’s Fourth of Foot. He received honors for his service during the battle for the American colonies. Something there changed him, but he would not say what or how. After the surrender, he cashiered himself out and ventured upon a career of information gathering.”

  “Never have I heard of such an occupation.”

  “All of his work is not intrigue such as we face. To hear him tell it, he’s often mired in the mundane. A vicar with an eligible daughter might engage Trimble to verify the reputation of an interested suitor. That, I believe, is the crux of his work.”

  “When next I engage a nanny, I’ll be sure to visit Trimble first.”
He stood and offered a hand. “Shall we see if my children have perfected kite flying?”

  “Oh, aye. Let’s do.” Agnes preceded him through the door. As they walked, she said, “Does Christopher have a fencing master?”

  “Yes, I’m teaching him myself.”

  That caught her attention. “I know something about the sport. Perhaps we could practice.”

  “Not until you are completely well. I will not be accused of taking unfair advantage of you.”

  She almost argued that she could better wield a foil using her left hand but decided against it. Teasing him was more fun. “You’ve done very well at taking unfair advantage of me, if my memory serves.”

  “Oh? Refresh my recollection.”

  “Absolutely not, and there’s no reason to broach the subject again.”

  “But I’ve only begun, and I like having the advantage over you.”

  7

  THAT NIGHT, AFTER A NEAR feast of fresh mutton shank spitted over the hearth, crusty scones, and potatoes roasted in ashes, Edward stretched as he led Agnes to the chessboard. He’d moved the gaming table into the tower earlier in the day. Everyone had dressed in medieval attire, and coupled with the close quarters of the common room, the evening had taken on a friendly intimacy. Thank the saints, Agnes hadn’t worn that fetching green gown tonight, for certain defeat at any game awaited Edward if he were subjected to another lengthy display of her womanly charms.

  Auntie Loo sat with Christopher and Hannah near the hearth, teaching them to weave cricket baskets. The staff had retired. Guards patrolled the estate.

  After defeating Agnes twice at chess, Edward refilled their mugs with cider and relaxed on the bench. He thought his wins had been too easy; he’d had the impression that she’d lost to him apurpose.

  The cloying odor of roses filled the circular room, fouling the exotic fragrance of her hair and reminding Edward that a certain viscount had, according to his messenger, picked the bouquet of flowers from his garden himself for Lady Agnes.

  “You’ve had gifts and well wishes from every eligible nobleman from here to Inverness in the north, Dumfries in the south, and Perwickshire in the east. No suitors in the west?”

  A teasing light twinkled in her eyes. “Have the fishes begun to court?”

 
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